Chaingang Rotofixa Article
The amazing life and times of Giovanni Pettenella
article by chaingang rotofixa spa
FABBRICA BICICLETTE DI GIOVANNI PETTENELLA - VIA SEMPLICITA' 4, MiLANO 20161, ITALY
Starting in Piazza Maciacchini, follow the tram tracks up along Via Imbonati. Pass under the bridge of the railway and continue along Via Pellegrino Rosso. The second road on the right is Via Semplicità. It’s a curious name, one that makes you wonder about the chap in city hall who came up with the unusual idea of naming a street after simplicity. Usually somebody has to be long gone before anybody even considers naming something after them. Perhaps it was deemed that simplicity had been buried long ago, an unfortunate casualty in a world increasingly enamored with complexity, and so why not name a street after it?
Proceeding down Via Semplicità, on your right you will soon find a green storefront. The glass on the windows is of the opaque type that makes it difficult to see inside, but even if it were completely transparent nothing would change as there are stickers everywhere obstructing the view of the interior. There is no official sign with the store name on it, but using white adhesive letters somebody has written the words ‘fabbrica biciclette’ (bicycle factory) on the door. The door itself is locked shut, but as soon as you ring the doorbell it is quickly opened by a very soft-spoken and unassuming man who is probably in his sixties and wears a pair of glasses with a black frame.
Stepping inside, you notice a big poster on the wall of Gianni Bugno clad in the World Champion rainbow jersey. On the left there is a showroom with a handful of bikes on display. They are vintage steeds and you can see it a mile away: lugged steel frames pianted in vaguely surreal colours such as gold and copper, downtube shifters and Suntour road groupsets. The workshop is on the back. Metallic shelves line the walls and there are two big tables in the center of the room. Literally every square inch of these tables is covered with bike components and tools, so much so that you would be hard pressed to find enough space to rest an Allen key on them. Hanging from the ceiling are some old frames, in the same out-of-fashion colours previously seen in the showroom. The impression is one of total chaos, and it is slightly bewildering. You slowly get used to it, however, and looking a bit closer you see that a few of the frames hanging up there have horizontal rear dropouts, and that many of the handlebars entwined up on the top shelf have an unusual curvature….
Returning to the front of the store you notice a big black and white picture on the wall of two track riders crossing the finish line. The stems of the bikes point downwards and the pedals are old-style caged models, all details that conjure up the lost atmosphere and distant memories of track racing’s glory days. Champions that rode bicycles with the skill and precision of gymnasts: a spectacle of pure speed, racing transformed into an art and a delightful show of physical strength, flawless technique and tactical prowess. Both riders in the picture have the same jersey, which is the ones worn by the Azzurri, the Italian national team athletes. The rider on the left has been frozen in the moment in which he is raising his arms in victory. You look at him closely, and then you look back at the unassuming man that opened the door for you and that is now quietly talking to one of his customers on the phone. Up on the wall two carefully framed diplomas catch your attention, and it slowly starts to dawn on you…
You are in the presence of greatness. The man you have in front of you is Giovanni Pettenella, also know as Vanni, a man who used to sell chickens in his hometown of Caprino Veronese before relocating to Milan to race bicycles. A man who from humble beginnings went on to win a gold medal in the track sprint at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics Games, besting on the occasion another Italian by the name of Sergio Bianchetto. A man who at those same Games also won the silver medal in the Kilometre, coming in behind the Belgian rider Patrick Sercu who would later became a legendary Six Day racer. A man who during the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympic track sprint against Pierre Trentin astounded the crowd with a 21 minute trackstand before finishing his adversary with a blindingly fast sprint. A man who on a hot day in the summer of 1968, at the Italian National Track Championships held in Varese, set the world trackstand record of one hour and five minutes, a record that stands to this day.
In Varese on that hot August day in 1968 the commentator covering the event for Italian national television ran out of people to interview, and a crowd of curious spectators slowly started flocking to the velodrome to witness the event. Pettenella’s adversary on that occasion was that same Bianchetto of the Tokyo Olympic sprint final, a rider who after one hour and three minutes of trackstanding under the fierce summer sun collapsed to the ground, unconscious. In a drawer of his office desk Pettenella still has a photograph of the final minutes of the race. Bianchetto is lying unconscious on the track with Vanni still trackstanding and waiting for the doctors to validate his victory in the first sprint.
Pettenella was the kind of rider that flew out to Australia in October, raced in the Six Day events, and then returned to Italy a the beginning of March, often just in time to enter the Milano-San Remo spring classic where he raced as an unattached rider. All this hard work and ceaseless globetrotting to earn just a little over a half of what a good road racer of the time was making. But that was well before the age of sports celebrities and the lucrative contracts of today, a time in which the French rider Trentin didn’t even have a bathroom in his house when he went off to race the Olympics, and when Pettenella himself immediately sold the Masi with which he had won his gold medal in Tokyo.
Pettenella ended his professional cycling career in 1969 after twenty years of racing on velodromes all over the world. He was promptly appointed technical director of the Vigorelli, holding the position until the velodrome was closed in 1987. During those years he also coached the Italian national track team, and when the Vigorelli closed he was appointed director of the Busto Garolfo velodrome for a couple of years. After he stopped racing Vanni got into frame building, and his track frames all have the signature ‘Vigorelli’ decal on the seat tube. Today, while Morelon – the French rider who took third place in the track sprint ot the Tokyo Olympics – is still the prestigious director of the French national track squad, Pettenella, who was the last Italian to win an Olympic gold medal in a track event, is relegated to his small and almost forgotten store where he passes his time in the company of his memories and his bicycle frames.
Cycling enthusiasts from as far afield as Japan come to visit him in Via Semplicità and to buy his track gear, but sadly most of his fellow Italian countrymen are scarcely aware of his presence. Track racing was his life, and he will gladly spend hours explaining how to correctly glue sew-ups to rims or discussing the finer points on how to brake using nothing more than a gloved hand. He is also the inventor of numerous cycling firsts, amongst which are aerodynamic frame tubes, the cyclocomputer, biomechanically designed pedals and aerodynamic wheels built using a reduced number of hollow tube-shaped spokes lying in the same plane.
Until recently very few Italians seemed interested in his astounding tales of battles on faraway velodromes, and those of us who love cycling can’t help but feel ashamed about such indifference. Perhaps the time has come to shed this indifference by simply jumping onto a fixie and heading over to Via Semplicità, diving into the wonderful cycling treasure trove hidden behind that unusual green storefront so that the amazing times and life of Giovanni Pettenella may never be lost or ceased to be marvelled at.